November 20, 2023
The discussion on the power of storytelling kicked off a monthlong series of episodes on healing.
Jonathan M. Adler, professor of psychology, was recently featured on an episode of Hidden Brain, a podcast that airs on more than 420 National Public Radio stations. The episode discussed Adler’s research on how people can tell their personal stories in ways that enhance their wellbeing, which kicked off a month-long series on healing. Learn more about Adler’s work below, and listen to “Healing 2.0: Change Your Story, Change Your Life” now.
Can you describe the broader field of research on narrative identity?
Narrative identity is the internalized, evolving story that we tell about our lives, one which weaves together the reconstructed past, perceived present, and imagined future. The field of research on narrative identity emerged in the mid-1980s, and since then it has grown from being a very peripheral approach to being one of the central ways that psychologists study identity.
These days, narrative identity researchers study a range of topics, from development across the entire lifespan, to political and religious engagement, to mental health and well-being, to the intersection of broad cultural narratives with the stories we tell as individuals about our lives.
Tell us about redemption sequences and contamination sequences, and how they relate to our well-being?
Redemption and contamination sequences are examples of the different themes people use in narrating their lives. One important thing to remember about narrative identity is that we are not particularly accurate reporters of the objective facts of our lives – our memory systems just aren’t built that way. We turn our experiences into stories, and the ways in which we tell those stories really matters, impacting our mental health and many other aspects of our lives.
In redemption sequences, stories that start bad end good, and in contamination sequences, stories that start good end bad. All lives have good and bad in them, so these themes are really about where we draw connections between experiences and where we parse the chapter breaks of our lives. In general, redemption sequences tend to support our psychological well-being, while contamination sequences tend to be bad for our well-being. That being said, not every negative experience can or should be narrated with a redemptive theme. And we often suffer social consequences for not conforming to the kinds of expected themes, like redemption.
How do you use the research in your field to help people in the world beyond the lab?
This is an important aspect of my work; I spend a lot of my time working to build on the insights of the research in my field to help people. Here are three specific ways:
- I work closely with a wonderful non-profit organization in Cambridge called Health Story Collaborative to translate scholarly literature into programs that help medical patients write and share the story of their experiences with illness and healing. The medical system is so fragmenting these days and stories are a vital tool for integration.
- Gillian Epstein, senior lecturer in English and writing initiatives specialist, and I co-direct The Story Labat Olin where we have developed many storytelling programs and workshops. We’ve run student-focused and community-wide Story Slams at Olin, as well as designed programs for other colleges and universities, major national organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and non-profit and for-profit clients. We see all of these programs as opportunities to support both individuals and communities.
- I co-wrote a play called Reverse Transcription with my colleague Jim Petosa that ran Off-Broadway in summer 2022. The play juxtaposed the AIDS pandemic and the COVID pandemic and was very much about trying to draw parallels and seek collective healing. In developing the play, I built on the scholarly literature on narrative identity and my interviewing skills from conducting that research.
As you can tell, while I am devoted to the research that I conduct, I really want to see the insights from my field live in the world beyond the lab and help people.
What kind of research are you working on right now?
I always have a bunch of things going on, so I’ll just mention two projects:
- For the past six years, I’ve been working to understand more about identity development among people with disabilities. I’ve gotten very interested in the relationship between identity and the body and people with disabilities have often thought much more deeply about that relationship than able-bodied people have. (And I draw on research in the humanistic discipline of disability studies, which offers much more complex insights than psychologists have about disability identity.)
- In my project focused on what I’m calling “identity theft,” the students in my lab and I have been collecting quite extreme stories of people who lose narrative authority of their lives (like people who are wrongfully convicted of crimes) as examples that help us understand some of the essential aspects of narrative identity. I’m hoping to devote substantial time to that project in the coming years and write a book about it.